from the front line: From Beer to Bytes

Over the course of the past year, I have attempted to bring to print real-world experiences ‘from the front line.’ I am currently using most of the products or services I have reviewed, and have hopefully helped you in making some of your hardware, software and service buying decisions.

Our merger with a $4 billion organization has necessitated my latest personal foray into the world of e-commerce. The new company is changing some of the basic ways in which they conduct their day-to-day business, and our IT group was handed the task of rapidly locating and implementing new e-commerce solutions to support the mission of the newly formed corporation.

The primary changes were in the way our daily orders were to be processed. In the past, all orders for food, packaging and equipment were transmitted directly from the 70-plus food distributor locations in the U.S. to our EDI system in Louisville, Ky. The new method of doing business eliminated the need to be the middle man. All of our owners’ ordering would take place between the food distributor and the supplier. Having been eliminated from the order placing/invoicing loop meant all of the sales activity data, which fed our sales analysis and other key systems, would not be available internally.

So off we went in search of a solution, and along came Instill Corp. (, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based e-commerce solutions group specializing in the Foodservice industry. I knew from the trade journals that Instill had experienced a high level of success with its e·store service, and had secured clients such as Marriott and PYA/Monarch, two leaders in the Foodservice distribution business.

While visiting Instills’ corporate offices – of course I went there; it was 80 degrees in Palo Alto, and 37 degrees in Louisville – I discovered that the two founders of Instill had, in another life, managed a chain of Silicon Valley micro breweries. Ted Daley one of the founders of Instill, explained to me that the day-to-day problems of getting orders from his stores to the distributor led to the founding of Instill.

My main reason for the visit was to view Instills’ latest product offering – Advantage. This Internet-capable system promised to solve my newly created problem of collecting sales data from multiple distributor locations, converting all the differing SKUs to a common ID, ‘scrubbing’ the data and providing worldwide access to a common sales database.

Instill has recognized that in addition to providing an easily accessed database, a secondary need also existed, such as a centralized source of item ID (SKU) conversion tables. Their internal SKU conversion files now contain over 125,000 cross references for most all major food and packaging items sold in the United States.

Considering the number of transactions I would be processing per week (about 800,000), I immediately recognized that for me to reinvent the wheel, and try to duplicate Instills’ operation was cost prohibitive.

Daley went on to explain the reason Instill decided a service/system such as Advantage was needed in the e-commerce world.

"One of the major impediments to seamless transaction and information flow between trading partners in the foodservice industry is the lack of any standards for identifying products. Unlike the grocery industry – where a bottle of ketchup carries a standard code that makes it identifiable at any checkout scanner and up the supply chain – a bottle or case of Heinz ketchup in this industry is called something different by every distributor: different product description, different manufacturer identifier, different product number, different pack and size description. Further complicating matters, there are no standard formats for electronic transaction files. File layouts and content varies from supplier to supplier."

He continued, "For there to be a seamless flow of transactions and information in the foodservice industry, whether between trading partners or between the restaurant management system and the corporate financial application, there needs to be a consolidator and ‘standardizer’ of product and transaction information. Because the number of products in foodservice is enormous and product turnover is frequent, the investment required to build and maintain a standardized catalog of foodservice product information is substantial. It doesn’t make sense, financially, for each restaurant chain to try to develop and operate such a system on its own."

It has turned out – after doing the math – that Daley is correct. Instill now appears to have a new customer: Me!

Bob Lewis is VP of IT at the FoodService Purchasing Cooperative Inc. (Louisville, Ky.). He can be reached at